Guatemala with Kids: Shamans, Ancient Temples, Tarantulas and Monkeys!

February 29, 2012 at 9:29 am
Mayan temple, Tikal

Mayan temple, Tikal

Archaeological sites aren’t always the most exciting for kids. But in Guatemala, the ancient sites are anything but boring. Guatamala was one of the main regions of the ancient Mayan civilization and the Mayan sites date back up to 2000 years ago, and are scattered all over the country. The most famous site is Tikal, the greatest of the Mayan cities, but there are many others.

So why are they so exciting? Firstly, the major sites are mostly in the middle of the real jungle. Secondly, you can’t miss the wildlife – howler monkeys and spider monkeys of all shapes and sizes swing through the trees, tarantulas are sometimes seen on the ground, the raccoon-like coatimundi may  pass you by – it’s really like a mini-safari. Thirdly, you have these incredible, massive stone temples soaring upwards, and you can climb them too,  and finally, at some sites Guatemalan Mayans still take part in ancient shamanistic rituals which are absolutely fascinating to watch.

Giant tarantula

Giant tarantula

Today Tikal is easy to reach – you fly to the lovely little town of Flores, situated on an island in a lake, and from there it’s less than an hours drive to Tikal. The site has been restored and so it’s easy to explore, and ramps and stairways have been built to help tourists reach the top of the main structures.

Nearby is the much less visited site of Yaxha – it’s only about 45 minutes away, but feels like a different universe. The tour buses don’t come here and much of it is overgrown – there is also far more wildlife than at Tikal and it is the ideal spot for a real Indiana Jones adventure.

Out in the middle of the jungle you have the site of El Mirador. This one is for real adventurers only – if you don’t helicopter in, it’s a four to six-day adventure trek with support horses, taking with all ones food and drinking water. Not for the faint hearted, but it’s available to anybody age 12 and up that wishes to go  – except in the wet season!

We visited the site of Iximche to witness a modern-day Mayan shaman go about his work. Despite 500 years of Catholicism, many modern-day Mayans still believe in the ancient ways. We witnessed a group of university students taking part in a ritual to help them score better grades! We also saw a family conducting a healing ceremony – this was a very serious affair.   The shamans build a circle out of sugar, and then place on top of it all kinds of foodstuffs and candles, which they then light. The resulting smoke helps take the messages to the gods (or at least this is what I understood with my smattering of Spanish!).

There are very few countries left in the world which offer this type of experience so close to home (for North Americans). It’s amazing.

Ancient Mayan rituals

Ancient Mayan rituals

I’m planning great trips to Guatemala. Read more about it here.